The most surprising aspect of Jake Locker's first return to Washington state - the region he managed to capture the hearts of during his time playing quarterback for the Ferndale High and University of Washington football teams - wasn't how much his pocket presence had appeared to improve.
It wasn't that he had seemed to close the gap on Tennessee Titans incumbent starter Matt Hasselbeck or even that Locker outplayed his more experienced teammate.
No, the most surprising aspect of the Titans' exhibition opener against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday, Aug. 11, was the number of tickets he had to purchase for family and friends to attend the game at CenturyLink Field, which the Seahawks won 27-17.
"I actually didn't have to get any," Locker said. "That's the great part. Nobody put that on my plate. I said, 'The tickets I'm going to get you are going to be up in the nose bleeds, so you all should go on to StubHub and get yourself better tickets.' They all went with that plan."
Locker's family managed to find tickets in the lower bowl, not far from the Titans' bench, and judging by the light blue and purple No. 10 jerseys that dotted the stands, they weren't alone, as at least a few hundred Locker family members, friends, fans and former teammates cheered him on.
Even his former Husky teammates were able to make it.
"Sark (University of Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian) texted me (Saturday) morning and told me they were going to bring the team out, which is awesome," Locker said. "It's cool they got the opportunity to. I'm excited to watch them this year. I'm looking forward to following them again this year."
The Huskies, along with the rest of the states of Washington and Tennessee, are just as eager to potentially watch him this year.
Locker has made some great strides since his rookie season, which saw him play in five games in relief of Hasselbeck, and the two now find themselves in one of the NFL's most talked about quarterback battles of training camp.
"I don't know that there was a big gap (to start)," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "I think that Jake obviously doesn't have the experience that Matt has, and that's a gap you never can really close when you're a younger quarterback. I think overall, as the season progressed last year, we thought that Jake was coming on real strong.
"A lot of times, for me, quarterbacks and players in general don't really improve when they're not playing during the season, like (Locker) didn't last year. It was kind of amazing ... how he came back and played so well after not having played for three months. I think he kind of picked up where he left off in training camp, and that's why there's a competition. ... We're happy with both of them, and at some point we'll make a decision."
Locker certainly made a pretty strong case to influence the decision on Saturday, though, as he passed for 80 yards on 7 of 13 passing and led the Titans to a field goal right before the half.
He showed plenty of poise, standing tall in the pocket and even stepping up to help him find the open receiver, as he finished with a quarterback rating of 72.6 during the second quarter.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just the comfort of what to expect," Locker said. "Last year, it was just such a whirlwind, with having the lockout and then having camp starting, and it's a new offense, a new environment. Everything was new. I think this year, having the opportunity to go through it for a year now - same staff, same offense, that sort of thing - there's a level of comfort in that. I think that's the only thing that's probably changed the most for me."
Locker also credited Hasselbeck, who struggled during the first quarter on Saturday by throwing two interceptions and finishing with a 29.6 rating, for helping him mature, especially in his pocket presence.
"(Locker has) continued to progress in the way you'd hope he would," Munchak said. "Now it's a matter of him continuing to get a chance to play and see things and make adjustments and see how he handles it. You can only simulate so much in practice. I think he's done everything we've asked of him at this point."
With the game behind him, Locker said he hoped to spend a couple of minutes with his family and friends before boarding the team bus to head for the airport and a late-night flight back to Nashville.
He said he didn't get a chance to spend time with his family on Friday night or Saturday morning, as he was busy preparing for the game, but he still appreciated their presence and the support he got in his return.
"It's awesome every time I get the opportunity to come back here," Locker said. "I feel really blessed to have the welcome that I always do. People are great and very supportive all the time, and I'm very thankful for that."
Reach David Rasbach at email@example.com or 360-715-2286.
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